At Science, More Calls for a Focus on Framing
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
In a Policy Forum article published this week at Science, MIT Professor of Management John Sterman reports on an experiment that shows just how self-defeating it is to continue to overburden the public with technical and science-laden explanations of climate change, especially when the communication goal is to catalyze public demand for policy action.
In the experiment, MIT students with advanced training in either the sciences or economics were asked to read descriptions from the IPCC summary for policymakers that depicted the long term accumulation of C02 in the atmosphere. When asked then to sketch what they estimated to be the emissions path needed to stabilize atmospheric CO2, nearly 2/3 of the elite MIT students erroneously reasoned that greenhouse gas emissions can stabilize even though emissions would continue to exceed the rate of removal from the atmosphere.
The conclusion: When presented with highly technical and science-laden depictions of a problem such as climate change, even our brightest minds with advanced specialized training often lack the required mental frameworks and models to accurately interpret, make sense of, and arrive at correct judgments.
As I've argued in articles at Science, The Scientist, and elsewhere, the problem in waking policymakers and the public up to climate change isn't an absence of science literacy, as so many scientists (and bloggers) continue to bemoan, but rather simply the nature of human cognition and the realities of our media system.
Let's put it this way, if our best students at MIT can't make sense of the IPCC report, how can we expect policymakers or the public?
What's needed is not simply getting more scientific information out there, but rather new methods for communicating about the problem that are adapted to the background of targeted publics, journalists, and decision-makers. In order to figure how to do this systematically, Sterman echoes my past conclusions by urging the scientific community to "partner with psychologists, sociologists, and other social scientists to communicate the science in ways that foster hope and action rather than denial and despair. Doing so does not require scientists to abandon rigor or objectivity."
Science and the squishiness of the human mind. The joys of wearing whatever the hell you want, and so much more.
- Why can't we have a human-sized cat tree?
- What would happen if you got a spoonful of a neutron star?
- Why do we insist on dividing our wonderfully complex selves into boring little boxes
Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.
- America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
- Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
- Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
A guide to making difficult conversations possible—and peaceful—in an increasingly polarized nation.
- How can we reach out to people on the other side of the divide? Get to know the other person as a human being before you get to know them as a set of tribal political beliefs, says Sarah Ruger. Don't launch straight into the difficult topics—connect on a more basic level first.
- To bond, use icebreakers backed by neuroscience and psychology: Share a meal, watch some comedy, see awe-inspiring art, go on a tough hike together—sharing tribulation helps break down some of the mental barriers we have between us. Then, get down to talking, putting your humanity before your ideology.
- The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.
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